Who Will Replace Justice Michael Gableman?

 Joe Murray  |    October 10, 2017

In April 2018, Wisconsin voters will go to the polls to elect a candidate who will serve on the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the next 10 years. As it stands today, three candidates have entered the race, and all three have moved quickly to position themselves on ideological and political fronts. One candidate, Madison attorney Tim Burns, is running as the ‚Äútrue progressive‚ÄĚ in the race; Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge Rebecca Dallet is positioning herself as the centrist in this contest; and Sauk County Circuit judge Michael Screnock is running as the sole judicial conservative. The lineup of candidates includes one on the left, one in the middle, and one on the right; this seems pretty straightforward at first glance.

In most Wisconsin Supreme Court elections, candidates generally refrain from taking positions on issues that could come before the court and almost always claim they will ‚Äúcall them as they see it‚ÄĚ and be an ‚Äúindependent‚ÄĚ voice on the court. The 2018 race appears to be different. Attorney Tim Burns has decided to campaign for this seat to, among other things, ‚Äútame the power of concentrated wealth and big business.‚ÄĚ Burns believes voters have a right to know where candidates stand on the issues of the day, even if Supreme Court candidates are not supposed to run on specific issues.

Tim Burns

  • Attorney, Perkins Coie Law Firm
  • BA, Weber State University
  • JD, University of Missouri Law School
  • Member, American Constitution Society
Rebecca Dallet
  • Judge, Milwaukee County Circuit Court since 2008
  • BA, Ohio State University
  • JD, Case Western Reserve University
  • Former Assistant District Attorney, Milwaukee County¬†
  • Former Adjunct Professor, Marquette Law School

Michael Screnock

  • Judge, Sauk County Circuit Court since 2015
  • MBA, Eastern College, Pennsylvania
  • JD, UW-Madison
  • Former attorney, Michael Best & Friedrich
  • Former city administrator and finance director, Reedsburg, WI

How this novel positioning will play out in the February 20 primary election should be interesting. In reality, Tim Burns and Rebecca Dallet will be competing for Democratic votes in the run-up to the primary election, so it could be difficult for Dallet to maintain her middle-of-the-road message as she competes with Burns for a bigger share of the Democratic base vote. Screnock should have less difficulty surviving the primary unless another candidate enters the race. Here are three things to watch as the race heats up.

Open seat contest: With current Justice Michael Gableman retiring, the 2018 race will be an open seat contest, and open Supreme Court seats are rare. Over the last 20 years, only two of the 11 Supreme Court elections were open seats. These elections occurred in 2003 and 2007. Given the current 5-2 conservative majority, it’s a safe bet that Democrats will seriously contest the 2018 race, unlike the 2017 election where Democrats gave conservative Justice Annette Ziegler a pass. This race will not be a sleeper.

Passion vs. experience: Although Tim Burns is running for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, his rhetoric and public statements make him sound more like a candidate for Congress or the state Legislature. Rebecca Dallet, on the other hand, is trying hard to maintain her middle-of-the-road position as she competes for Democratic votes heading into the February primary. Wisconsin has become a very politically polarized state over the last 15 years, and this could make it difficult for Dallet to survive the primary as her independent and experienced positioning competes with the ideological passion that Burns brings to the race. Either way, Democrats must decide which candidate will be a stronger general election candidate in the April election.

Early fundraising ability will matter: The next fundraising reports will be released in January, and those reports could say a lot about which two candidates will move on to the April 2018 general election. As the only judicial conservative in the race, Screnock will likely raise enough money and support to advance to the April election. Burns and Dallet, on the other hand, will have to compete for financial support among Democrats who will have to decide if they want to send unapologetic progressive Tim Burns or more centrist Rebecca Dallet to the general election.

The WRA will interview all three candidates later this year for possible support in next year’s election. Watch for more information in the coming months.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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